Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Minotaur's Nest

"Literary horror" is a category I find unnecessary and a bit snotty. What is that supposed to mean? Is this somehow more "worthy" than genre fiction, something more intellectually respectable than a mere horror novel?

The novel itself is not so pretentious. It is an enjoyable, suspenseful, and occasionally touching story about mental illness and captivity. Its metaphor is accessible and not overwrought. The setting is a hospital for the mentally ill that focuses less on treatment and more on sedating and warehousing human beings (and of course billing public agencies for their services). This is, at least, the social reality to which the inmates -- er, patients -- have become resigned. The story is told in jubilant, straightforward prose in a wry voice that occasionally prompted me to wonder who this narrator was. The default answer seems to be Victor LaValle, who interrupts the story two or three times to share real-life examples of the system's "failures" -- or are they successes? As one of the novel's unhappy characters notes: "Every system is designed to give you the results you actually get. If you understand that, you'll see that this system is working."

This novel emerges from a United States much changed since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest appeared in 1962, ten years before Victor LaValle's birth. This is another novel in which an everyman winds up in a mental hospital. The Devil in Silver owes a debt to that novel but expresses a different kind of hope in the face of a more sophisticated adversary, embodied here as a monster with a bison's head and sharp horns. Interestingly, these authors have had very different personal experiences of mental institutions. Victor LaValle has witnessed mental illness amid his own family, has visited them in these places and seen their treatment; in the author's note, he has very harsh words for one place in particular, but does not elaborate on what happened there. The late Ken Kesey, on the other hand, worked in one of these places as an orderly.

The Devil's merits as a frightening horror story may be overstated. I did not feel, with the author of one of the blurbs, that this will "scare the living ^$%* out of the reader." There is a monster roaming the hospital and terrifying the patients, yes. The true monster, we discover, is one that is highly insulated from popular revolt.

A more notable achievement is its central character, a bit of a roughneck who calls himself Pepper. Again, from the author's note: "Being a kid from Queens means I grew up with people of every color, nationality, and faith. Among those were plenty of working-class white guys. They were my friends. But when I saw guys like them in books, movies, or television, they were usually depicted as: 1) drunks, 2) abusers, or 3) drunk abusers. The guys I'd known deserved better than those portrayals. They were as capable of goodness as anyone else." He achieves this remarkably well in Pepper, especially considering the character is heavily medicated for much of the book. The guy is unsophisticated and given to solving conflicts with his fists, and is at the same time funny, affectionate, a man who can be thoughtless but who also demonstrates incomprehensible kindness.

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